Virtual reality is for more than just entertainment. Here’s how VR has medical application to treat people’s mental health.
Virtual reality (VR) is an exciting technology that has existed since the 1960s. For a long time, VR has been synonymous with gaming and entertainment. However, its applications in modern medicine are plenty.
Over 20 years of studies and research suggest that VR technology can effectively treat PTSD, anxiety, and several types of phobias. With haptic devices in the making, we have only scratched the surface of what VR is capable of.
While there is plenty of research on the effectiveness of VR for treating mental disorders, the technology is still under testing. Preliminary trials have shown the potential VR holds to treat a range of mental disorders. Every year the technological limitations tend to decrease and that makes this treatment all the more promising. But how does VR help patients recover from PTSD?
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition. People who undergo traumatic events exhibit a variety of symptoms. Symptoms can include nightmares, anxiety, social isolation, triggered flashbacks, depression, and intrusion. You may develop PTSD if you have been in an accident, witnessed violence, abuse, or incurred a serious injury. Current treatments include exposure therapy, CBT, EMDR, and medication.
Even genetics influences the probability of developing mental disorders. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 6% of US adults experience PTSD in their lives, or about 15 million people during a given year. This doesn’t even account for children. Therefore, the number can tend to be even higher. Additionally, women are more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD compared to men.
Stress can destroy newly formed neurons in the brain. Thus, it’s imperative to treat PTSD as soon as possible. VR has proven to be faster and more effective than conventional treatments. It accomplishes this task through virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET).
What Is VR Exposure Therapy?
Virtual reality exposure therapy is a type of exposure therapy that treats different types of phobias, anxiety disorders, and PTSD symptoms. It’s an enhanced form of exposure therapy (ET). ET is a confrontational treatment; it targets different triggers and avoidance behaviors.
For instance, an accident victim might develop a fear of traveling in cars or any public transportation. Therefore, using ET, a patient confronts their fears and triggers. That helps logically understand their behavior and dismantle fear.
However, confronting a variety of triggers can be difficult. For example, exposing a veteran to an active combat environment is neither possible nor safe under conventional ET. This is where VRET comes in. Virtual simulations make exposure therapy extremely effective and customized. Through VRET, PTSD patients can be exposed to their triggers and fears in a controlled, safe, and realistic manner.
How Does VR Exposure Therapy Work?
Computer-generated simulations are the core of VRET. Simulations mimic the real world as realistically as possible. The computer-generated environment is customized and programmed based on the patient’s needs. Through a virtual reality headset such as the Oculus Quest 2, you can begin experiencing the simulation. In addition to just sight, VRET can also include sounds, smells, and vibrations to magnify the experience.
Patients can live through and interact with the custom 3D environment in a highly controlled manner. However, this depends on the simulation. If the simulation is created only for passive confrontation, interaction is minimum. As simulations get more realistic, interacting with AI-generated elements is becoming increasingly popular.
Features such as motion and head tracking ensure the most accurate and intuitive 360-degree experience. In the near future, advanced machine learning algorithms could aid therapists in better identifying mental health markers and creating optimized treatment plans.
VRET Can Be Better Than Conventional Therapy
There are several reasons why VRET stacks higher than conventional exposure therapy. Conventional ET can only target specific social triggers and fears. That limits the effectiveness and scope of exposure therapy.
Consider the example of sexual assault-induced PTSD. In real life, exposing a PTSD patient to a similar trigger is difficult. Similarly, confrontation with combat exposure, fire hazards, and so on, cannot be safely replicated. Hence, VR is the most efficient and cost-effective method of exposure therapy.
VRET removes all imaginable limitations. For instance, a person with extreme social anxiety can learn to cope in social situations without having a public breakdown.
Until now, such a type of exposure has never been possible. Similarly, VR can treat phobias such as arachnophobia, hydrophobia, and claustrophobia. Essentially, any mental disorder that requires confrontation can benefit from VRET.
How Effective Is VRET?
Medical treatments need to be scrutinized and put through rigorous tests before approval. The treatment is approved if it outperforms the control group or a placebo. VRET has already entered clinical trials.
The UCF Trial: Researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) are presently testing their proprietary VRET software: Traumatic Event Scene Creation System. The state-of-the-art system enables therapists to intuitively create any scene within minutes by entering the details of the trigger.
UCF’s VR software will uniquely immerse participants in the sights, smells, and sounds of their trauma. The trial will continue into the second quarter of 2022. You can participate or learn more about the ongoing trials on UCF’s information portal.
The Oxford Trial: A trial conducted by Oxford University in 2016 was met with positive results. Although the sample size was limited to 30 patients, the results were promising. Participants reported significant reductions in anxiety and paranoia after undergoing as little as 30 minutes of VRET.
There is plenty of empirical evidence that suggests the effectiveness of VRET. Research about using VR for psychotherapy dates back to the early 2000s. Over 20 years of peer-reviewed scientific literature exists that strongly suggests the effectiveness of VRET. Earlier, due to technological limitations, creating realistic simulations was not feasible. Now, VRET is well within our reach.
The Future of VRET
VRET will only get better with time. With results from the UCF trial, VRET has a high chance of becoming mainstream within the next three years. Another factor preventing this therapy from reaching more people is the cost involved. VR headsets and proprietary software are expensive. Therefore, as these get cheaper, so will VRET.
The VR domain is rapidly expanding. Creating accurate dynamic simulations is a complex task. However, gaming engines such as Unreal 5, Unity, and other proprietary engines can create virtual worlds almost indistinguishable from reality.
Facebook’s new Metaverse project is a testament to what is possible within VR. The Metaverse will create a virtual universe with limitless possibilities. Such advancements will make virtual therapy sessions a reality. VRET is a groundbreaking method of psychotherapy, and it is already here.